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The Constitution of India that we rely on today for our fundamental rights as citizens, is a gift to us from the pioneers of Independent India. Do you know the women who were a part of the Constituent Assembly that adopted it?
Our constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949 and came into effect on 26 January 1950. (The Constituent Assembly itself was an elected body, with members being elected by the legislatures of each state). While most of us familiar with the prominent members of the constitution, we mostly talk of the male members and especially its architect, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. However, an effort was made to include women right from the inception.
On the occasion of the Republic Day, I wanted to look at some of the noted women who were a part of this historic process, and pay homage to these forgotten heroes.
Born in Rajahmundry on 15 July 1909, Durgabai Deshmukh was married off at the age of 8 to her cousin. However, she refused to live with her husband as she came of age and parted ways to pursue her education. At the age of twelve, she participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement and later in the Salt Satyagraha Movement. In 1936, she established the Andhra Mahila Sabha and was the Chairwoman of several central organizations. She was sent to the Constituent Assembly from the Madras Province (of the time).
She was a Member of the Parliament as well as the the Planning Commission. For her extraordinary contribution to the cause of literacy, she was awarded the fourth Nehru Literary award in 1971. In 1975, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.
The only Muslim woman member of the Constituent Assembly, Rasul was born into the princely family of Malerkotla. She along with her husband joined the Muslim League and in the 1937 elections, she was elected to the U.P Legislative Assembly. As a member of the Constituent Assembly, she also played the role of Deputy Leader of the opposition. Later, she joined the Congress party and was elected as a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1952. She was the Minister for Social Welfare and Minorities and in 2000, she was awarded a Padma Bhushan for her contribution to social work.
Hansa Mehta was a reformer and social activist. She was also an educator, writer and a feminist who wrote many children’s books in Gujarati and translated many English stories including Gulliver’s Travels. She became President of All India Women’s Conference in1945-46. In her presidential address at the All India Women’s Conference convention in Hyderabad, she proposed a Charter of Women’s Rights. She was a member of the Advisory Committee and Sub Committee on Fundamental Rights. She advocated for equality and justice for women in India.
A familiar name to most Indian readers, Sarojini Naidu was the first Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress and to be appointed as an Indian state governor. While studying in England she had some experience of the suffragist campaign, and was later drawn to India’s Congress Movement and to Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement. She travelled widely to talk about the work of the Congress including to Africa and North America. Her anti-British activities led to her imprisonment several times and she even accompanied Gandhi to London for the inconclusive second session of the Round Table Conference in 1931. Naidu was well known for her literary prowess and popularly known as the ‘Nightingale of India’.
Born in Lucknow, Amrit Kaur was India’s first Health Minister and she held that post for ten years. After her return to India from England, she was interested in India’s freedom struggle and her meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1919 influenced her to join the freedom struggle. She joined the Congress and co-founded the All India Women’s Conference in 1927. She later became the secretary and finally the president of this conference.
In 1930, her participation in the Dandi March led her to her imprisonment by the British Raj. Despite her aristocratic background, she took up the austere life at Gandhi’s ashram and served as his secretary for sixteen years. She even worked to reduce illiteracy, and to eradicate the custom of child marriages and the purdah system for women.
Post- independence, she was the first woman to hold Cabinet rank. In 1950, she was elected the president of World Health Assembly, becoming the first woman and the first Asian to hold that post. She served as the Chairperson of the Indian Red Cross society for fourteen years and under her leadership, the Red Cross did a number of pioneering work.
Women’s participation in politics has always been difficult in India for the average woman. It’s time to remember women like these who went beyond the norms and took their rightful place in public life.
All images via Wikimedia Commons
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